Written by Karen Day
First Published
Revised 30th July 2023

The Canadians at Burton upon Stather

April 1944, our parish suddenly saw an influx of Canadian soldiers. Camping in woodland, fields and in the grounds of Normanby Hall itself preparing for D Day.

When the Canadians first came it was real hot summery weather and they stopped in that little three cornered pinfold as we call it outside Mother's house in Thealby. They used to run a little shop, sweets, tobacco and such like, and of course they used to give them lemonade and whatever. One of the officers went to her when he found out, You can't afford to do that. Look, she said, They're a long way from home, I've got two lads a long way from home, I hope somebody'll do the same for them. Anyway, she never lost by it, they used to see she was alright if there was a little bit of black marketeering passing that way.

David J Taylor
I Remember Normanby

Their arrival caused much excitement among the locals, who initially thought they were American, especially with the village children. Winn Readhead documents much of this in his book Stather Tales and Pete Day recalls, then aged seven, cheekily calling out Got any gum chum?

Firstly though, we should go back in our timeline to August 1942, two years earlier and the ill-fated Dieppe Raid.

Operation Jubilee (Dieppe Raid)

The 2nd Canadian Division took severe losses in August 1942 during an Allied Forces water-based raid on Dieppe, this included a tank regiment and was supported by the Royal Navy and the RAF.

The objective was to capture the port and hold it for a short period.

The majority of the troops were Canadian and approximately 50% of all those who took part were either killed, captured or wounded.

Transferring and rescuing wounded aboard an RN vessel during the Dieppe Raid
Transferring and rescuing wounded aboard an RN vessel during the Dieppe Raid
c. Service historique de la Defense

Morale was low afterward and there were many changes – from commander to kit.

It took a year for the division to rebuild itself and perhaps the exercise in our area in 1944 helped to gel the new recruits including Private John Mertler, a Calgary Highlander.

It must be realized by all unit commanders that this will be their last opportunity to make the men of their units fighting fit, and fit to fight

Excerpt from The First Canadian Army Directive No. 18
15th Dec 1943

January 1944 and Operation Axehead

At the end of January 1944, the 1st Canadian Army was issued a directive from HQ 21st Army Group (a British HQ controlling the British 2nd Army and 1st Canadian Army) and Engineer planning began that same day.

The role of First Canadian Army will be to land [in Normandy] after the Second British Army.

After taking over the left-hand sector of the bridgehead it is probable that First Canadian Army will be required to advance Eastwards and capture the ports of Whitstable and Clarence.

The operation for seizing these ports will be called Axehead.

Excerpt from Report 66 Declassified

Codenames - The ports of Whitstable and Clarence were Le Havre and Rouen, respectively. The river Durrus was the Seine; Dilton, Malton and Bexley were the Dives, the Torques and the Risle.

In Preparation

Arriving on 28th & 29th March 1944, with 46 (E) Infantry Brigade and R.E. units, the 1st Canadian Army Troop Engineers settled down in the Goole area and began taking preliminary instruction in watermanship.

The Goole exercise was like the forthcoming Kate and called Oyster III. It took place on The River Ouse, in Yorkshire, just 7 miles from Burton upon Stather as the crow flies, or by driving some twisty 23 miles, taking up to an hour on the roads of the day.

11th of April 1944

HQ 1st Canadian Army issued a directive to 2nd Canadian Corps to employ the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division in conjunction with specially trained engineers to participate in planning a Brigade Assault. This exercise was known as Kate, as mentioned earlier, and is what brought units of the 2nd Canadian Army into the Burton upon Stather area. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division were organised along regional lines and Sally Robinson in her interview recalls meeting French Canadians and the excitement of word being spread that one was a real Red Indian.

Engineer Training

During the first three weeks of April, under Lt-Col Fraser 's direction, field companies of both 1st and 2nd Canadian Army Troop Engineers practised assault rafting and bridging, and familiarised themselves with storm boats.

28th April 1944 - At Burton Upon Stather - Exercise Kate (Krossing A Tidal Estuary)

Personnel of the Royal Canadian Engineers (R.C.E.), 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, pushing a storm boat into the Ems River south of Emden, Germany, 28 April 1945
Storm boat, Ems River, Germany

Kate, began on the River Trent at Burton Stather on 28th April 1944. It was not a single divisional exercise, but rather a series of brigade and battalion exercises using storm boats. The items of special equipment to be used on Kate were:

Storm Boat
A power-driven plywood vessel 20 feet long, with capacity for 12 armed passengers or 3000 pounds of freight.
Sometimes referred to as Pontoons, were erected by engineers on the spot and used to move heavier equipment. i.e. at least 2 x Bren carriers or 1 60cwt truck. Each raft was propelled by 4 outboard motors.
American reenactors crossing the Rhine, but you see the idea of the raft and outboard motors.

Taking part were:-

  • Units of 1st & 2nd Army Troop Engineers
  • Royal Regiment of Canada
  • Royal Highland Light Infantry. Regt C.
  • Essex Scottish, (the earlier Dieppe raid saw the Essex Scottish take over 500 men to France and only 51 made it out to return to England, they suffered the most casualties of that raid)
  • R.H.C. (Royal Highlanders of Canada)
  • Calgary Highlanders (see Margaret Little’s profile of her father Pte. John Matt Mertler M.31375)

And the following supporting arms and services:-

  • Elements of 2nd Anti-Tank Regt. Royal Canadian Army (2 A Tk Regt. RCA)
  • Elements of Toronto Scottish Regiment (Machine Gun) Tor Scot R. (MG)
  • 5th Infantry Brigade Company Royal Canadian Army Service Corps (5 Inf Bde Coy R.C.A.S.C.)
  • 45th General Transport Company Royal Canadian Army Service Corps (45 Gen Tpt Coy R.C.A.S.C.)
  • Three platoons of 85th Bridge Company R.C.A.S.C.
  • Air Support in the form of smoke was provided by Typhoons of 266 Sqn RAF

266 Squadron

The squadron was reformed on 30th October 1939 at RAF Sutton Bridge as a fighter squadron. The squadron was one of the Rhodesian gift squadrons and was named 266 (Rhodesia) Squadron in honour of the gift. Originally a fighter squadron, by 1944 it had become a fighter – bomber squadron based at RAF Duxford and re-equipped with the Hawker Typhoon. During April – May 1944 the squadron was stationed at Snaith during the smoke exercises and briefly became part of Second Tactical Airforce, No.146 Wing.

Kate Force

By 6th May 1944 all the units that were taking part had arrived and became known collectively as Kate Force.

Exercise ‘KATE’ Continued until 19th May at Battalion level.

By 20th & 21st of May the 4th and 5th Canadian Infantry Brigades re-joined 2nd Infantry Division in the Dover-Folkstone area.

This is supported by the journals of Dr L G Alexander Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, confirming him being in the area from 2nd to 5th May 1944.

Lieutenant Leslie Herbert Browne, Royal Canadian Engineers, playing his David Glen bagpipes aboard a ship en route to France on D-Day, 6 Ju(Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 3227577)
Lieutenant Leslie Herbert Browne

Sally Robinson nee Bull remembers waving the soldiers off as they marched to Scunthorpe Railways station and hearing farewell shouts such as Bye Sister, Bye.

Not Represented on Exercise Kate

  • R.C.E. of 2nd Canadian Infantry Division
  • 4th Canadian Armoured Division and Corps Troops

These units, beginning with 2nd Infantry Division R.C.E. in mid- April, practised tidal bridging on the Medway, in Kent, though tidal conditions there differed from those anticipated in Operation Axehead.

May 1944 also saw the arrival of a unit attached to the 79th Armoured Division and a more permanent crossing area at Burton upon Stather was formed between May 1944 and July 1944 – but that is a another story.


Calgary Highlanders Badge

Private John Matt Mertler M.31375


Recently we have been contacted by Mrs Margaret Little a Canadian with Scunthorpe roots. Her Mum Doris Freda Welch lived in King Edward St., Scunthorpe and met her father John Metler when he was stationed here. They later married and Margaret has researched her Dad's war story and kindly given us permission to use it here. However, Margaret was unable to find out where her Dad was stationed in our area, fortunately were able to give her the information that we have about the 2nd Canadian Infantry which she was delighted to receive.

Written by Margaret Little
First Published

Edmonton Fusiliers & Calgary Highlanders
Second Canadian Infantry Division, 5th Brigade

We Walk With You

The spirits of the men and women who fought for our freedom live will live forever. The poppies are in remembrance of those who fought for our freedom, at home and on the battlefield.

Thank you Dad
being a role model with strong work ethics and principles,
being courageous to take risks,
putting family before yourself,
sharing your dedication to your country, community, and friends,
but most of all for
the support and love you gave your family.

Margaret Little
Daughter of John Matt Mertler

Early Life

From the age of 13, Dad went out to work on the threshing crews and made the whole sum of 10 cents per day. Unfortunately, there were few jobs and World War II had started. Every fall, Dad spent many a long hour on the threshing crew. After spending the fall of 1940 as part of Art Hays' threshing crew, Dad decided to join the Canadian Army. People at home in Canada also made their contribution to the war by sending packages to those loved ones overseas.

Thank you to the Calgary Highlanders' Archives and the Personal Records, Library and Archives Canada for providing Dad's service record. The entire original records are attached. The following is the Personnel Selection Record which states that the form will accompany the soldier's regiment documents at all times.


Private Mertler's ID card

On October 3rd, 1940, in Grande Prairie, Dad enlisted for active duty with the 1st Battalion Edmonton Fusiliers, C.A.S.F.,(Canadian Active Service Force) C.A. (Canadian Army - Active), B.T.(Basic Training), and A.T (Administration and Training). After providing all his personal information, he signed the Canadian Active Service Force, Attestation paper with Lt. Col Louis Scott, the District Recruiting Officer.

The Edmonton Fusiliers did not serve overseas but did supply troops to the Calgary Highlanders. The Calgary Highlanders were in the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, 5th Brigade.

Within the first year, Dad qualified with the Regimental Signals. His station changed from M.D. 13 to M.D.11. On September 19th 1941, Dad qualified and classified as a First Year Signaller and sent to New Westminster, BC. (explanations for the abbreviations were not always available)

On June 4 1942, he went to Prince Rupert, BC.

This interview by Captain N.M. Seccombe took place in Sidney, BC on December 15, 1942.

Completed Grade 6 at the age of 13.
Left school because of job available.
Was out of school before completing Grade 6 because no school in district and also had to work.
Six years farm labor.
His crime sheet was - one absent without leave!!
Drinks moderately.

This man says he is anxious to get into action overseas and thinks he would like paratroop training. He appears to be rather quiet, good natured sort but says he likes a good fight, at present is employed on fatigues and is rather restless because of inactivity.

His M test score indicated above average ability and intelligence. He should develop into a good combatant soldier.

The recommendations were:

  • Signaller - Infantry (R)
  • Non-tradesman
  • Suitable for overseas service
Captain N.M. Seccombe
15thDecember 1942

January 23, 1943, saw Dad in Patricia Bay, near Sidney, BC where he was authorized to draw Trained Soldiers' Regimental Rate of Pay at $1.50 per diem. He was also entitled to wear the Mars Badge. While in Patricia Bay, he was S.OLS and posted to No 13 Dist. Depot on February 19, 1943.

On February 21, 1943, the designation changed to T.O.S. (taken on strength) #13 and was posted to Dis. Coy. (A&B) in Calgary.

Embarking for The UK

Freda Mertler
Freda Mertler

Dad was given Embarkation leave from Feb. 21, 1943 to March 18, 1943. His ration allowance was 50 cents per diem. On March 22, 1943, Dad was posted to the Calgary Highlanders (Rein) and SOS on proceeding out of MD #13 on Special Duty. On March 22, 1943, they embarked for the UK or England and disembarked on March 31, 1943. (information was not available)

Dad earned the right to wear the Crossed flag as well as the Good Conduct Badge and was a Qualified Signaller (INF).

It was during this time in England that Dad met Mom.


After training near Scunthorpe, England, the orders came to embark to France. Records show that the troops left England on July 5, 1944 and arrived July 6, 1944 on the Beaches of Normandy. It is hard to imagine the troop ships loaded with soldiers and equipment heading to the shores of Normandy.

Landing Craft
Landing Craft

The landing craft was used to transport the troops. The front would lower and everyone would head out carrying all their gear, landing in the cold sea water, all the time hoping and praying that they would make it to shore alive. As everyone left the landing craft, shells and bombs were going off. On D-Day, many did not make it to shore alive.

The Advance into France

Hill 262, the last stand for the Polish Army. As the Polish fought on, the British and Canadian armies came to their aid. Fighting uphill was made more difficult because the hedges with their spines made it very hard for the soldiers to get through. Some tanks were outfitted with a v-shaped piece of metal which would allow them to cut through the hedges.


The names, Lisieux, Argentan, Chambois, The Falaise Gap, Caen, and Montormel will forever be etched in our memories as that is where Dad would have been. Looking out over the quiet valley, one finds it hard to imagine the noise, the smoke, the overwhelming feelings, and the courage of those men who fought and died for our freedom. The pictures tell their own story. The Curator at Montormel gave us a poppy to place on the monument in Dad's name.

The months following July 6, 1944 were difficult ones, always on the move, rations including the dreaded mutton, lack of sleep, and the constant noise of gunfire. It has been stated that the Calgary Highlanders, who had little or no experience in battle, won by sheer guts and determination!

Battalion of Heroes

From the book, Page 127, Battalion of Heroes, David Bercuson wrote:

In the early hours morning hours of 5 September, the men boarded trucks and left the Dieppe area. Through the night and into the next day they were carried north, through pretty countryside to Montreuil about seventy kilometres southwest of Dunkirk. There they and their sister battalions halted for a few hours as Megill and his battalion commanders plotted their next move. Foulkes had ordered them to push on to the vicinity of Gravelines, close to Dunkirk, after noon. The men were tired and hungry.

David Bercuson
Battalion of Heroes

He goes on to say:

The Highlanders took up positions on both sides of the road as their sister battalions drove past in the dark. It rained heavily and the men waited, cold and wet, for the word to move out. But it never came that night. At about 0300 the next morning the men were told to stay for the rest of the night and to move out at first light.

The next day dawned cold and wet and the Highlanders had their first good look at the sodden land they had arrived in as they marched to St. Folquin. They were in a fifteen to twenty kilometre-wide band of polderland that stretched south from the Channel coast. Over the centuries, this area had been claimed from the North Sea by farmers building dykes and draining the land in between. The land was flat and crisscrossed by drainage ditches, which were usually linked to larger navigation canals. The Germans had destroyed many of the dykes and caused water to seep across the fields and soak the farmland. The depth of the water varied from a few centimetres to a metre or more. It was not high enough to allow the Canadians to move by barge or assault boat but it was more than high enough to make walking over the fields very difficult and passage by tracked or wheeled vehicle was almost impossible. Dykes ran along the borders of the fields and the large ones had paths or even narrow roads on them. Sometimes the dykes were mined, but even when they were not, German machine guns or 88s made walking atop them certain death. Thus virtually every advance during daylight hours was carried out through the hip-deep water in the drainage ditches, where there was at least some cover.

It was an awful place to fight in. The stench of sewage assaulted the nostrils. The constant wetness shrivelled the skin, exacerbated every tiny cut and sore, caused innumerable cases of trench foot, and made life generally miserable enough without the added dangers of shell and machine gun fire. Some of the roads in the area were being resurfaced when the siege had started and the construction crews had left barrels of tar by the roadside. The tar had seeped into the drainage ditches through the men's clothing and seared exposed skin until it wrinkled up. When the tar didn't seep from the barrels, the German machine gunners tore the barrels open, showering the oily mixture into the ditches.

To Loon Plage

Despite the weather, the lack of troops, the constant barrage as well as the hit and run attacks from the Germans, the Calgary Highlanders hung on. On September 7, 1944, the troops awoke to more pouring rain. They were to pass through Bourbourgville and advance to the northeast in the direction of Loon Plage. The fierce shelling continued but they pressed on.

It was in this area of Loon Plage and Bourbourgville that Dad was hit by shrapnel in his leg. Details are sketchy from this point on. We know that he was taken from the battlefield back to England. While in England, Mom went to London to the Batley Park Hospital to see him. His leg was in traction. While visiting Dad, a doodlebug (a bomb) went over, and when the silence came, Mom threw herself across Dad to protect him! On January 19, 1945, Dad was discharged to #1 C.M Centre Bordon. On July 19, 1945, Dad was transferred to Provost at Aldershot where he was assigned to the 2nd Canadian Special Infantry Battalion. (clipping attached)


The marrage of  John & Freda Mertler
The marriage of John & Freda Mertler

You might think that it would be easy to get married - in those days it was not. References had to be checked and they had to have permission. While Mom and Dad waited for permission to marry, they spent many hours at Mom's home at 50 King Edward Street.

The Application Form For Permission To Marry was very detailed. Dad's average weekly earnings at the time of his enlistment was $15 per week. Mom and Dad knew each other for one and a half years. Dad agreed to an allocation of $200 from his Deferred Pay for the purpose of establishing a home for himself and his family. In addition, Mom had to supply references in order for them to get married. Mom lived at 50, King Edward St., Scunthorpe, Lincs.

On November 3, 1945, Dad and Mom were married in the Ashby Wesley Church in Scunthorpe. The plan was for Mom and Dad to travel home together but they found out that there would be an addition in October, 1946, so Dad returned to Canada on March 1946. On April 16th, 1946, Dad was discharged from the Calgary Highlanders at the Armoury in Calgary. During the war, Dad was awarded the following medals:

Private John Matt Mertler
  • 1939-45 Star
  • France-Germany Star
  • Defence Medal
  • CVSM & Clasp (Canadian Volunteer Service Medal)
  • War Medal 1939-45

When Dad had returned to Canada worked at the GWG Factory in Edmonton. He decided that an indoor job was not for him and went to work on the gravel crusher on the Hart Highway.

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